When thinking about health, most all of us focus our efforts on moving our bodies and steering clear of a poor diet. Even tiny efforts can make a world of difference physically, as we discussed last week, but what can we do to sponsor longevity when it comes to our minds? As we move into older age, are there things we might do to maintain our mental acuity and stave off dementia?
The sounds of shuffling playing cards and the slap of them being laid out on a table ring in my ears as vividly as other childhood memories, like the sound of the ice cream truck. My mom is an avid Solitaire player and is always up for a game of Gin Rummy, Casino or even Go Fish. I’m pretty sure the main reason she had a child was to have someone to play backgammon with on-hand at all times (she waited to teach me until I was 3).
While diet and exercise no doubt support our brain health and are pivotal in terms of aiming for longevity, cognitive exercises are just as important when it comes to staying sharp. Most of us spend the majority of our adult lives working to build up enough cash reserves so we can retire. Brain power and memory build their own reserve over the course of our lives, the volume of which is determined by several factors.
While I am no neurologist, brain health fascinates me. The hippocampus is an area of the brain that is often connected with signs of aging or the lack thereof. It is essential for forming new memories (for instance, a recent conversation or what you had for dinner) and has been found to have shrunk in those who exhibit signs of dementia more than those who do not.
Certain foods are attributed to brain health. These include berries, green leafy veggies, nuts, olive oil and fatty fish, but foods that contain resveratrol and anthocyanins are particularly good for memory. Foods that are red, blue or purple in color contain these polyphenols in high quantities (think blueberries, red grapes, purple cabbage, cocoa and even red wine) and help to build our hippocampus.
Sometimes it seems that the more information we get thrown at us, the less we know. One thing that has become clearer and clearer, however, is the relation between brain health and nutrition. Changes in diet were shown to have an effect on memory in as little as three months, but physical and mental exercise is pivotal for brain health as well.
Cognitive reserve (CR) is described as the brain’s ability to understand, process and improvise in order to accomplish tasks. It’s demonstrated in how our brains process and cope with challenges. This term came about in the 1980s when researchers conducted autopsies on people who had not demonstrated any symptoms of dementia during their lives and found their brains exhibited many traits that were found in Alzheimer’s patients. These patients were thought to have large cognitive reserves that helped them to offset the damage and to function normally despite the physical damage. While the measurement of cognitive reserve is based on self-report, it is thought to be enhanced by education, curiosity and experiences (both social and leisure). Through various mental exercises, it is thought that our CR can be boosted. The larger our CR, the more likely we are to be able to stave off dementia.
Try these mental exercises to boost your CR levels.
Grab a deck of cards
Playing cards and board games has been shown to stretch our minds. Since social interaction is important when it comes to cognitive reserve, playing a game with a group of people certainly isn’t a waste of time.
Play Memory (It’s not just for kids!)
I liked to think of myself as a Memory champion as a child. Remembering where things are is a challenge for the best of us at times (um, anyone else ever misplace their glasses only to find them on their head?). There are grown-up versions of this classic card game, but you can find a young friend and challenge them to a game. You can even use playing cards for this one!
Ditch the calculator
While my hubby makes fun of me for still balancing my checkbook, old-fashioned addition and subtraction isn’t just for first-graders. Putting aside the calculator can be a quick mind game of the healthiest kind.
Get your zzzs
Our brain literally cleans itself when we sleep. As we shed toxins whilst we snooze, those seven or eight hours are some of the most important of our lives.
Remember phone numbers
I used to dial a number once and remember it forever more. Sure, I was younger then, but even when I had my first cell phone that stored phone numbers when I was in my 20s, I no longer knew anyone’s digits. Dig out your cell phone and play a memory game to see whose number you can remember by heart.
Learn a new hobby or language
Stretching ourselves mentally has never been easier with all the language apps and how-to YouTube videos. Picking up an instrument, finding a new hobby or finally learning a second language helps to fortify our cognitive reserve. Now to just find the time …
Finding time to decompress and unplug is just as important as being productive. When we turn our “focus” off, our brain has a chance to retrieve memories, generate ideas and access its creativity. According to an article published by Harvard Medical School, it makes us feel more self-connected as well, so don’t feel guilty about stealing a minute on the couch.
Puzzle it out
Crosswords, sudoku and puzzles are great ways to work out our cognitive ability. Not only are they entertaining, but they stretch our minds intellectually.
Make your own mayo
Avocado is anti-inflammatory and will help to replace its inflammatory counterpart, soybean oil found in store-bought mayo.
1 egg – room temperature
1 ½ teaspoons lemon juice
½ teaspoon Dijon mustard
¼ teaspoon salt
½ cup avocado oil
Place all ingredients save for the oil into a food processor or large jar.
Use processor or immersion blender to emulsify egg, mustard and salt.
Add oil in drizzling into mixture a bit at a time.
Mix until you’ve reached the desired consistency.